Santa’s Job: An Occupational Health Psychology Perspective

This December, Kevin Teoh (Department of Organizational Psychology, Centre for Sustainable Working Life) makes some light-hearted observations on the psychosocial working conditions of Santa Claus.

Santa Claus has a tough job (By Jonathan G Meath (Jonathan G Meath) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Santa Claus sighs as he reviews his list of kids who have been naughty, and then goes over those who have been marked nice. The increasing global population means the number of children on his list grows with each passing year. Currently, it’s estimated to contain the names of between 152 and 526 million children (Bump, 2011; Svan, 2009), meaning a lot of presents to sort out and deliver. This is concerning, as there is ample evidence demonstrating that high workloads are linked with poorer health and lower job satisfaction (Goetz et al., 2013; Ree et al., 2014). Gosh, a sick and unhappy Santa, we wouldn’t want that.

Santa’s demanding job

As Christmas approaches and work intensifies, Santa’s standard 9-5 hours five days a week gradually extends into the evening and the weekends, increasing the number of hours worked. The seasonal nature of work faced by Santa and his team exists in other industries as well. Accountants during tax filing season go through a similar increase in their working hours, which has a detrimental impact on their health and work-life balance (Sweeney & Summers, 2002). Putting aside the amazing feat delivering presents around the world on December 25th, cognitive functioning after more than 24 hours of continuous wakefulness is similar to having a blood alcohol concentration level that is over the legal limit (Dawson & Reid, 1998). If we are concerned for the safety and wellbeing of Santa, perhaps he shouldn’t be operating his sleigh under such conditions.

While the job of Santa is likely to be very secure, I wonder whether his crew of elves and reindeers experience similar precarious working conditions that many seasonal workers do. Unfortunately, across Europe the high prevalence of temporary contracts faced by such workers not only increases job insecurity, but temporary workers often have fewer employment rights, perform more hazardous jobs, have poorer working conditions and are paid less (Hesselink et al., 2015). But surely though, given the charitable nature of Santa he must be as close to the best employer you will find?

Taking control of your work environment

Santa has little influence over the fact the busy festive season peaks at the end of December. This isn’t desirable considering the importance control at work has in relation to worker happiness and health. However, the reality of many jobs is the presence of external factors beyond a person’s control. To manage this, job crafting has emerged with growing support as an approach encouraging workers to alter aspects of their own jobs that they can (Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001). We actually see Santa himself do this in trying to manage his big deadline. While many countries see December 25th as the day Santa visits with presents, Santa has staggered the dates on which he visits different countries. For example, he distributes gifts in the Netherlands on the 5th of December (as Sinterklaas), before moving onto Germany, Switzerland and neighbouring countries the next day. On the 18th, you will find him as St. Nicholas in the Ukraine, while on the 6th of January a Father Frost gives out gifts to many children of a Russian Orthodox background.

In addition, we see that Santa has crafted part of the job for himself, and delegated aspects of the role to others. Across the world we see Santa as the bearer of gifts and happiness. However, in many cultures Santa partners local representatives who handle issues relating to discipline and punishment. The distributed work often involves beating misbehaving children or taking them away in sacks, and is carried out by Santa’s assistant Krampus (Austria and Germany), Schmutzli (Switzerland) or Zwarte Pieten (Belgium and the Netherlands), amongst others. It is not clear why he has crafted his job in this way. It could be to manage the overwhelming workload, or perhaps it’s an aspect he does not feel comfortable about or even competent at. Regardless, it seems to contribute to Santa’s success.

Why is Santa, Santa?

Santa-Hat-webConsidering these points above, what motivates Santa to work through such difficult working conditions? He is likely to be eligible for retirement, and while he may be doing it for the fame it is unlikely that the role provides a strong financial incentive. It is, however, far more likely that Santa draws meaning and purpose from this job of his. We know that individuals working or volunteering with charity and religious organisations are motivated by their values and their propensity for prosocial behaviour (Cnaan et al., 1993). Furthermore, having a sense of purpose and meaning at work is positively linked with better work and general wellbeing, engagement and performance (Shuck & Rose, 2013). Focusing specifically on Santa, two studies (Fletcher & Low, 2008; Hancock, 2013) involving a group of Santa Clauses found that these actors frequently perceived authenticity in their role as Santa. The job was not only because of the money, but was driven by a sense of recognition that they were doing something worthwhile, bringing happiness to the kids and making it a magical experience for them.

From a distance, it seems that Santa has most things under control. Yes – it is not a perfect working environment, but Santa has taken charge of his work environment, moving deadlines and empowering partners to work with him where possible. He appears to be very much in touch with why he is doing this job, providing meaning and purpose to his role. There is still scope to improve, a better understanding of the demands will help develop and target resources relevant to Santa. Listening to and appreciating Santa is also imperative. After all, if we don’t support and believe in Santa, how can we expect Santa to continually believe in himself?

*A longer version of this article first appeared in the European Academy of Occupational Health Psychology Newsletter (2015, Volume 12, Issue 2).

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References

  • Bump, P. (2011, December 14). Santa’s Christmas Eve Workload, Calculated. The Atlantic
  • Cnaan, R.A., Kasternakis, A., & Wineburg, R.J. (1993). Religious people, religious congregations, and volunteerism in human services: Is there a link? Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 22, 133-151.
  • Dawson, D. & Reid K. (1998). Fatigue, alcohol and performance impairment. Nature, 388, 235.
  • Fletcher, R. & Low, D. (2008). Emotional Labour and Santa Claus. ANZMAC 2008, December 1-3, Melbourne, Australia.
  • Goetz, K., Musselmann, B., Szecsenyi, J., & Joos, S. (2013). The influence of workload and health behaviour on job satisfaction of General Practitioners. Family Medicine, 45, 2, 95-101.
  • Hancock, P.G. (2013). ”Being Santa Claus’: the pursuit of recognition in interactive service work. Work, Employment & Society, 27, 6, 1001-1020.
  • Hesselink, J.K., Verbiest, S., & Goudswaard, A. (2015). Temporary workers. OSH Wiki: European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.
  • Ree, E., Odeen, M., Eriksen, H.R., Indahl, A., Ihlebæk, C., Hetland, J., & Harris, A. (2014). International Subjective health complaints and self-rated health: Are expectancies more important than socioeconomic status and workload? Journal of Behavioural Medicine, 21, 3, 411-420.
  • Shuck, B. & Rose, K. (2013). Reframing employee engagement within the context of meaning and purpose: Implications for HRD. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 15, 4, 341-355.
  • Svan, K. (2009). Santa Claus at Risk. Faculty of Science, University of Gothenburg.
  • Sweeney, J.T. & Summers, S.L. (2002). The effect of the busy season workload on public accountants’ job burnout. Behavioural Research in Accounting, 14, 1, 223-245.
  • Wrzesniewski, A. & Dutton, J.E. (2001). Crafting a job: Revisioning employees as active crafters of their work. Academy of Management Review, 26, 2, 179-201.
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